“The (On-Going) Talk” (Talking With Your Kids About Sex, From Ages 2 to 5)
This is my third article in a series about talking with your kids about sex. Here are the others:
- Is It Biblical to Teach Our Kids About Sex?
- The (On-Going) Talk (Talking With Your Kids About Sex, From Birth to Age 2)
The reason this series is “The (On-Going) Talk” is because I believe this is not meant to be a one-and-done topic. One mistake I believe we can make, as parents, is to compartmentalize this issue in a way we do with virtually nothing else in life. We get all nervous about it, and don’t talk about it, or relegate it to one “big talk”– something we feel we can only do with a book in hand, or at an official “purity seminar,” or whatever.
- Will you only talk with your kids once about the kinds of foods that they should eat– what’s healthy/what’s not?
- Should your children only get one formal, nervously-awkward speech from you about how to be a good friend?
- Do your children only need to hear one warning about being diligent in their work?
No… in all of these areas, you recognize the value of instilling wisdom, over time.
Like these topics, this one — of sex, marriage, babies, and more– should be an ON-GOING conversation.
Over time, you can share with your child the tools they need to enter adulthood with a healthy and biblical understanding of how and why God made their bodies to work as they do. Over time, you will give them the basics, answer their questions, and help fill in or correct places where they misunderstand or lack the big picture. Over time, you develop a trust relationship so that they can come to you when issues arise in their hearts and lives.
And it all begins with the early verbal years– ages 2 to 5.
AGES TWO TO FIVE
This is the time in your child’s life when you can lay the foundation for your child’s future understanding of marriage, family, sex, and their bodies.There are some blessings to it happening at this young age:
- They are still little.
- Their understanding of these things is not sexual.
- The questions they will ask are fairly limited, compared to what the range and depth of topics become when they are preteens and older.
- There is plenty of time ahead of you to correct misperceptions, or continue building understanding, in things that they misunderstand or misinterpret now.
Remember that all of these conversations happen in an on-going way, so none have to be an “all or nothing” experience. However, just like with other topics of life, some conversations will be more shallow, and some will be more-in-depth. Even though it feels huge (and it is important), this is not something to stress or feel anxiety about… this is a privilege– that YOU get the be the one to frame your child’s understanding of these important subjects!
First, I’ll deal with a common objection — “do we really have to?” I believe this question derives primarily from uncertainty and discomfort (often because we ourselves were ill-informed & ill-equipped in these things). After that, I’ll dive in and address the general things that I believe are good to address with kids from age 2-5.
DO WE REALLY HAVE TO TALK ABOUT THIS?
Yes, I believe it’s biblical and right… and also:
THIS IS NOT 1875.
Unlike the silence of previous generations on this topic, I do not believe it is healthy, biblical or wise to keep our children in the dark, or “protect” them from reality, as long as possible. In fact, by delaying this discussion, you are virtually assuring that they will get worldly information, wrong information, or flat-out wicked information, from some other source.
Honestly, though? Part of me wishes I could avoid it. I wish I didn’t have to warn my children about the risks of sexual abuse. I wish I didn’t have to talk with my preteens about pornography. But these are not realistic wishes in the day and age in which God put me.
Gone are the days when we can ignore difficult realities. Gone are the days when your American son’s greatest sexual challenge was the flirting of a prostitute on the biannual trip into town on the buckboard wagon. Gone are the days where America’s children grew up on farms, figured out the basics of how babies are made that way, and went into adulthood successfully married to their Christian friend down the road without any major ethical dilemmas in the sexual realm. Gone are the days when elicit content was tucked away in some less-visited part of town that had the “decency” to cover it all up with dark windows and paper bags.
[As a side note, it helps me to remember that this is also not A.D. 75. Having walked the streets of Ephesus with my children in 2010, I realize that if I was a mom in the early church, I would have had to purposefully face these things, too. I would have to talk with my children about the reality of the brothel directly in the center of town. It would have been unavoidable, standing on the corner of the main path between our house and the “agora” where the Apostle Paul sold tents, where we would have bought vegetables and linen. I would have to warn them about homosexuality, sexual acts of worship in the temple, and man-boy sexual relationships common to that culture. Having to face these topics really is nothing new… but in recent American history, they have been sometimes treated as best avoided.]
We no longer live in a culture where we can ignore these things. If we do not give our children an understanding of these things, they will almost certainly go the way of our increasingly-wicked culture, or they will face great difficulty in engaging with the oversexualized culture around them that completely misunderstands and wrongly frames these issues. Whether or not we like it, this is the world they are called to “go” to, “love,” “serve,” “teach,” and “disciple.” Additionally, the risk of sexual abuse for those who are unwarned, uninformed, or underinformed, is real. None of these options are good.
Instead, we can be proactive, and give them a biblical framework for understanding themselves and the world. Let’s jump in.
WHAT THEIR BODY PARTS ARE FOR
For little girls, this will include a progressive discussion about the design and purpose of their chests, as well as their genitals. Here are some sample conversation points:
- Perhaps in the bathtub, when she notices them: “Yes, those are called ‘nipples’ and they are part of your chest; that’s where a mama’s milk comes out after she has a baby.”
- When she asks why her chest isn’t big like mommy’s: “Right now your chest is little, but as you grow up, your breasts will grow bigger. God made it that way so that if God gives you a baby, you will be able to feed the baby.”
- And whether she asks or not, this is a simple way to explain her parts: “God made it so that girls and ladies have three different holes. The one in front is where your pee-pee comes out. The one in back is where your poo-poo comes out. The one in the middle is called a vagina– it’s the special place God made for babies to come out.”
For little boys, it’s more straight-forward, partly because everything is “out there” and obvious in a way that isn’t true for little girls.
- In bathtime/diaper changes, as they notice, name his “penis” just like you would with his nose or belly button. No need to get nervous or weird about it.
- When he asks about his nipples, name them, and explain that his chest will not get bigger like mommy’s– that God has made men and women wonderfully different. “Your chest will not get bigger because you are a boy and will become a man. You have a penis like Daddy. Your body will grow to be bigger and stronger like him.”
- My boys also find it wonderful and hilarious that they will one day have hair on their bodies. Sometimes I’ll tickle them under their arms, under their chins, and on their chests and say things like, “One day when you’re a man, you’ll have hair on your body like daddy does. You’ll have hair under your arms and maybe even grow a beard!” And we dissolve into giggles and tickles. It’s not something absolute… just another example of how to have these low-pressure conversations that are continually reminding them that their bodies are made purposefully by their Creator.
This happens on varying levels, as they grow and mature, but keep teaching & reminding them. Some of these conversations will come up naturally, and some will be because of things happening in their lives, and some will happen because you are being a purposeful mom and sense that it’s a good time to introduce the topic.
WHO IS APPROPRIATE TO TALK ABOUT THESE THINGS WITH?
You also will want to (multiple times over, especially at first, and then at least a few times a year) remind them:
- “Talking about your private parts is something you only do with Mom & Dad, and sometimes with your doctor. Do we talk about these things with anyone else?”
- “That’s right; we don’t, because these are private parts God has given you for one day when you become a husband or wife. Should you talk about this with brother/sister?”
- “Do you talk about this in Sunday School, on the playground, or with your friends?”
- Should anyone else ever see, or ask to see, your private parts?
- “That’s right. These are things you don’t talk about with anyone but mom and dad. And if you ever have a problem, like an itchy place or if something’s hurting, who should you ask about it?”
- “Mom or Dad?”
- “Yup. Mom or Dad. And then we’ll take a look and make sure everything’s OK. OK?”
- “What should you say if someone else starts to talk about, or asks to see your privates, or wants to show theirs?”
- “No, and run away.”
- “That’s right! That would be wrong for someone else to do. And tell Mommy and Daddy as soon as you can.”
Obviously this is not a script. Adapt it to your natural conversational style and the norms of your home. If your child is regularly around grandma, for example, you may want to include her. But in general, keeping it very simple and straightforward is the best way to keep propriety clear in the child’s head.
I can hear the protests now-– “but after we talked about it, my 3 year old yelled over to a random man in the produce department, ‘you have a penis & yours is bigger than mine cause you’re a man but I’m just a little boy!'”
And, I want to say this gently, but here’s the thing… these conversations should all be happening alongside normal childhood discipline, where the child is learning to listen to mom and dad’s instructions and carefully obey. I’m not saying the produce department scenario can’t/won’t happen, but I’m saying that if you have been diligently teaching your child to listen to you and to take your words seriously, then this too will go through that filter. There will be moments where you have to correct, or remind, them so that they remember to keep these things private for discussion with mom & dad, but this is not a major concern for me.
Instead of expecting the worst outcome, prepare for the best outcome, and prevent against the worst outcomes through teaching and discipline. With all 5 of our kiddos that are at/past this age, we’ve had a few relatively minor infractions, but nothing major, nothing memorable. You can help them understand by teaching them, “knowing about how babies are made, and why God has made these parts of our body, is something that is special and private and part of getting older. It’s a special gift from God, and not something we’re to talk about with just anybody.”
They really can learn to keep these things private and for discussion with mom and dad only, if you teach them to do so. Privacy and discretion will become more and more intertwined with their understanding of sexuality as you teach and guide them, over time.
UNDERSTANDING PROGRESSES OVER TIME
When a toddler first asks how babies are made, an answer like, “God puts the baby together in the mommy’s tummy”, may be sufficient. But as that toddler advances into preschool and beyond, questions like these need to be answered more accurately and specifically. The next piece of information may be, “God uses a teeny part of the daddy and a teeny part of the mommy and brings them together in the mommy’s tummy to make a baby that grows bigger and bigger until it’s time to come out.”
If your child can understand the basics of how a building is made, or how a plant grows, they have sufficient understanding to hear and understand the basics of how God uses a man and a woman to make a baby.
Just like anything else, their grasp of the topic will grow as their verbal and mental skills progress. So what starts out small and basic, will over time, grow deeper so that by the time they are adolescents, you will be able to interact about social and cultural issues without much of the “mechanics” playing a part in the discussion. At that point, their understanding of sexuality, pregnancy, marriage, divorce, and topics like these will be framed by what you have taught them and what the Bible says, and so then you will be able to discuss ethical issues and societal struggles without the added pressure of also trying to avoid or having to give specifics about body parts and functions.
THE QUESTIONS THEY ASK & WHAT ANSWERS TO GIVE
With our preschoolers, we talk about these things generally. I say “generally” because this isn’t necessarily the time for detailed anatomical discussions, although some kids may find that interesting and it may be perfectly fine.
In our home, we tend to talk about these things more often because, well, I’m currently 7 months pregnant with baby #7, and the kids ask things each time we have a baby. Questions like these are common:
- How big is the baby in your tummy?
- How did it get in there?
- Do I have a baby in my tummy?
- Does daddy have a baby in his tummy?
- How will the baby get out? (Though this one can feel intrusive, it’s really not. It’s an engineering conundrum for this child who hasn’t yet experienced this issue. Give an honest answer: “God made it so that a baby can come out through a special opening between mommy’s legs that gets big enough to let the baby out.”)
- Does it come out your belly button?
- Why is your tummy still big even though the baby is out now?
- Why don’t girls have a penis? (In my experience with both genders, this question is more common than the reverse because one is more visible on the outside, and thus more easily “named” by children.)
- Why does the baby drink from your chest?
- Will my chest make milk like that?
- Does one side make regular and the other side make chocolate milk? (Yes, this was said to me. By a precocious 4 year old, many moons ago.)
- What does the milk taste like?
- When will the baby stop drinking your milk?
Your child(ren) will probably come up with their own unique questions too, whether it’s with your pregnancy or someone else’s. They may even ask the same question multiple times– to gain more information, to gain confidence in what he already knows, or because it has become fuzzy or unclear in his mind. Don’t be frustrated or surprised if you have to explain the same thing multiple times and multiple ways.
And even if they don’t ask, I’ve come to the opinion that this stage (with the lack of nervousness, and intake of so many other pieces of data about how the world works) is the perfect time to give the basics, whether they ask specific questions or not. Just the same way we drive past a new housing development, and naturally begin explaining how the construction process works, and why they build the walls that way, etc., this is a perfectly good time to begin framing your child’s understanding of the woman’s large belly you just passed in Target, or the reason you’re excited that Uncle Joe is marrying his fiance Annie.
Though it’s tempting to shirk off these probing questions, especially the ones we perceive as more personal or embarrassing, these questions provide an excellent opportunity to engage on these topics!
When we talk with our kids we try to follow these basic guidelines:
- Keep it in the context of biblical truth. (I often reply with some variation of, “God is so amazing; He made our bodies to work this way…” Now, a word of warning: it can’t ONLY be this sort of “God does it” answer… just like the way a house is constructed, children need physical, factual details as well, but it should always BE in this context, even when more details are shared.)
- Keep it factual. Our children should have a rock-solid confidence that we will be honest with them.
- Keep it simple. Answer the question they’re asking. Help them develop a clear framework for a right understanding of these things.
- Keep it in the context of marriage & family.
On that last point, yes, sometimes Aunt Sally has a baby without a husband, or they see a teenager who is pregnant. Even then we have the opportunity to frame it in the context of God’s plan for human beings. “God made it so that a man and woman would come together to make a baby as part of a family. While it is possible to make a baby outside of marriage, God’s idea is that each child should have a mommy and daddy in their lives who are committed to them and committed to each other. Isn’t that a wonderful plan? In this case, Aunt Sally is going to be doing this alone, which will be harder for her, and for the baby, but God has a plan for this too. We love Aunt Sally & we will love her sweet baby too! What do you think we can do to help her?”
RESOURCES TO HELP YOU
Using books and videos can be an excellent way to provide accurate information in a non-threatening and non-awkward-for-parents way.
Here are some I recommend for this age group:
- The Story of Me (God’s Design for Sex, Book 1) — This book is specifically intended for children ages 3-5. It gives a gentle and very very basic description of how babies are made, as well as basics about each gender’s body parts.
- The Wonderful Way Babies Are Made — This book offers both a large-text option for younger children, and a more detailed small-text option to read with older children, and gives the basics of marriage, sex, and babies in a biblical context. It also has a section at the end that talks about adoption and how Jesus grew in Mary’s tummy but was adopted by Joseph.
- For those with a baby on the way and preschoolers who can sit still for documentaries, we’ve LOVED the visuals & explanations in National Geographic’s DVD, In The Womb. This gives an amazing narrative of the growth of human babies inside the womb, and our kids have absolutely been enthralled with it. There is also a corresponding book (also called In The Womb) that our children (after watching the video) enjoy flipping through to remind themselves about the incredible way God grows babies.
As with anything else intended for your child’s consumption, if you have any concerns at all, I encourage you to review these materials first, before presenting them to your child.
WHAT SHOULD I DO TO PREVENT SEXUAL ABUSE?
I decided, after getting this far into this post, that I need to make this topic a separate article. So I will do so in the next article in this series. I just wanted to let you know that I’m not skipping over or avoiding that topic, but rather, it will take more time and space than would be wise to include in this already-much-longer-than-normal article.
FINAL THOUGHTS ABOUT WHY…
While your preschooler may seem far too young to talk about some of these things with, the truth is that he/she is just a few short years away from (unfortunately) having friends with smartphones who may be more than willing to tell them and show them what you will not. And I believe it is actually easier to talk about these things sooner, and to continue the discussion over time, than to delay and end up with one big awkward-fest at the time that their hormones and bodies are changing and they’ve already developed their own sense of understanding (and likely picked up some misunderstandings) of these things. By talking about these things now, you are setting the stage for an on-going dialogue about sex, marriage, and relationships, that can serve them well as they travel through the adolescent years that are rife with temptation and pitfalls.
The goal is to help our children understand the world around them through the framework of God’s plans and purposes for us all. These years, between the ages of 2 & 5, give us a wonderful time to set the stage for future discussions & deeper understanding.
Images courtesy of: stock images & dreamdesigns/freedigitalphotos
Subscribe to my newsletter, and I'll send monthly encouragement -- full of truth and grace for moms. SIGN UP, SO WE CAN KEEP IN TOUCH: